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Cancel culture and the limits of free speech

I’m currently boycotting Twitter in support of the antisemitism protests. If you’re not up with the Twitters basically some grime artist called Wiley (how do these people become famous without me ever hearing of them) had a full-on rant about Jewish people and Twitter took way too long to take down his account. I know not tweeting for 48 hours is the armchairiest of armchair activism, but it’s something. Maybe.

But it’s been a bit of a relief not being on there. It seems like every day there’s some moral controversy about someone who’s worked with someone else when they were cancelled, or whether cancelling itself is a good idea or not. The argument is that everyone has a right to free speech. The opposing argument is that no-one can expect to say what they like without consequences. Actually, the challenges of working through these moral quagmires is part of the reason I’m on there. It’s a constant test of where the right course lies, and where I want to position myself ethically. And it’s not always as easy to spot where the line is as it was with Wiley (the grime guy not the publisher).

But positioning myself ethically all the time is tiring, so I’ve been trying to encapsulate what I described in a tweet as a moral quagmire into a few key aphorisms because that makes it way simpler for me. I thought I’d share them.

I’d been thinking about it a bit more because in the recent Buffy episode of Pedagodzilla there was much idolising of the work of Joss Whedon. We didn’t once address the revelations about his alleged history of being emotionally abusive towards women. I was fully expecting some flak for this, but it hasn’t yet emerged.

It’s also cropped up because of the letter by JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie etc condemning cancel culture. I also read this article https://theintercept.com/2020/07/14/cancel-culture-martina-navratilova-documentary/ which details the struggles to get a documentary made about Martina Navratilova made because of a couple of cancel culture incidents.

More personally for me, within the comics industry there’s been a kerfuffle because Dynamite Comics recently contributed to and then publicised a variant cover for a comic published by the leader of the Comicsgate movement. For anyone not keeping up Comicsgate is a group of people who oppose what they see as a political agenda forced onto comics by liberal progressives. So “forced diversity” such as non-white characters being introduced, and gay couples, within comics when their ethnicity or sexuality isn’t relevant to the plot. Their position is that they just want good storytelling without having homosexuality forced down their throat. In isolation, the argument about not sidelining storytelling with political agendas sounds like a reasonable one. Very few people like authors using their platform as an opportunity to push politics, because they’re exploiting their relationship with their audience to fulfil their own personal ends. Where the argument falls down, of course, is that not including non-white or LGBT characters is just as political a decision. CGers just don’t see that as a political choice in the same way that fish don’t see water – it’s the norm that they’re used to so that it seems neutral to them. Also being white and straight predominantly means they want to see themselves, and only themselves, reflected in what they read.

Also what CGers fail to recognise is that comics have always had a liberal progressive agenda. If you look at the characters in the MCU for example, 90% of the characters were created by second generation Jewish, Irish or Ukrainian immigrants. Hang on, I will check that. To be precise: 80% of the title characters (and all of the title characters if you exclude the movies that are set off-world) were created by offspring of Jewish, Irish or Ukrainian immigrants. Superheroes are the wish-fulfilment fantasies of the oppressed and disenfranchised who wanted something to stand against the inequities of this world. And have been read for 80 years by geeks who felt the same.

But the CGers feel they are the oppressed now. Oppressed by the influx of non-white, non-male, non-straight people into what they see as their world, not realising it never really was.

Aphorism 1: Just because you’re not getting your own way, doesn’t mean people are out to get you.

But on a larger scale this is how a lot of mainstream culture sees itself. We can no longer say what we think, is the complaint, without being cancelled, or losing our jobs. We’ve lost our freedom of speech.

And freedom of speech is a tricky one. What should be the limits on what you can say?

Well, actually we have a pretty useful law on how freedom of speech works. You can say what you like as long as it doesn’t affect someone else’s fundamental human rights. What’s also cool is that there is no protection because your opinion is a deeply held religious belief. For example, the legal response to someone who feels they can be homophobic because their religion says it’s evil is “nope, the law’s right, your religion’s wrong. STFU.” Which is the correct response.

Freedom of speech is a tricky one. I may have said that already. I remember recently on the twitters a famous TV mathematician was accusing Noam Chomsky of being antisemitic because he was defending someone’s right to publish a book denying the holocaust happened. This is a huge reach, The Chomsk’s statements are more those of being a hardcore free-speecher. Anything goes. I recognise the validity of the argument – if you stop people from saying stuff you don’t like, then what happens when someone stops you from saying stuff they don’t like?

Aphorism 2: Agreeing with someone’s right to say something doesn’t mean you agree with what they say.

This was a tricky one for me, because I was firmly committed to the idea of free speech. Some background: I was one of the Thatcher generation – in my first teaching job Section 28 came in, which meant I could get fired if I promoted homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. Of course, the kids like to get their teachers into trouble by asking them outright what they thought.  I said it was as valid as straight relationships. Because it is. No-one ever fired me. We also had Mary Whitehouse and her bunch of thugs who liked to ban things because they were fucked up evil people. No other reason. And we had Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses. More fucked up evil people. All points at which freedom of speech had to be defended at any cost.

But on the other hand. Holocaust denial. Wtf? How do you balance those two opposing principles?

My answer.  Actually: I don’t agree with free speech.

Aphorism 3: You do not automatically have a right to express an opinion.

Earning the right to express an opinion takes work. You have to check your facts. You have to work out your argument. It has to make sense. Spreading misinformation is a bad thing. I disagree with Chomsky on this one (but aphorism 2 – that doesn’t make him antisemitic). You shouldn’t publish or sell books on holocaust denial because it’s not true. The holocaust did happen. You want to prove it didn’t that’s going to take a lot of work – an impossible amount of work. Similarly, you don’t have a right to say that vaccines cause autism, the Earth is flat, evolution didn’t happen, God exists. None of those things are true. I figure the mythical stuff is ok as long as it’s presented as myth, under the “let’s pretend” category, as the reality or not of God stands outside proof or disproof (see the previous post about ontology). But either you ban all lies or you ban none. Ethics have to be consistently applied or they don’t really work as ethics.

But … what about the grey areas? Ones where people are wading in with facts and figures on both sides? Aren’t there some areas where we need to have a debate? Rowling’s fears of trans women invading women’s safe spaces seem to be genuinely felt and shared with other women, even though there’s no evidence for them being a threat. Should she be banned from saying those things? Well her fears are real, so probably not. But, claiming that transsexuality isn’t real so obviously lacks even a glinner of a connection with reality, then I would say you don’t have a right to express those claims. It’s not about as subjective a thing as feelings. It’s about facts.

That’s not to say you have to allow them to be said on social media or printed in newspapers. The letter about cancel culture complains about censorship. But refusing to print your books, or removing you from a newspaper column, because people don’t like what you said isn’t suppressing free speech. You can still write a blog, or self-publish, you know, like regular people do. If someone rounded up all your self-published books and burnt them, or put you in prison for writing a blog, or speaking the truth then that’s censorship. And that’s going on in many many parts of the world. All that’s happening to the Rowlings and their ilk is that they’re losing their privileged position of having a more magnified voice.

Aphorism 4: Burning books is censorship. Refusing to print them is just removing your privilege. Get a grip.

So, is it OK to cancel people? Yes. If someone is going to say stuff that’s untrue, they need to be stopped from saying it. If they’re going to say stuff that people don’t like, or may harm people’s feelings, those people have a right not to buy their stuff, or encourage others not to buy their stuff, or refuse to work with you any more. Although no-one has a right to threaten anyone for what they’ve said. That’s psychopathic.

But it’s a response that’s best used judiciously.

Going back to the ComicsGate scenario. I’ve read comics for 50 years. I’ve never read a huge amount at a time though, and my interest has waxed and waned over the years. At the moment, I read about 8 titles. 6 of those are Dynamite Comics because they are the ones that seem to best embody the pulp sf of REH and ERB. The other two are DC. And those are both by Tom King. So you can see the degree to which I admire the key players.

So when Dynamite publicised their support for the Comicsgate title it was a bit of a dilemma. In the conversations around it I found out some other gross things about other writers I admire. People were refusing to buy any more titles. I never cancelled my orders. The head of Dynamite then changed his mind, and his response was that he hadn’t realised there would be such a kick back against the move.

People didn’t believe him. He must have realised that people would be outraged.

Directly after that Tom King complained that DC had hired an artist – Jae Lee – to do one of the covers to his new title because he’d been working with the CGers. Jae Lee got lots of online harassment. King then apologised because he’d talked with Lee and discovered Lee didn’t even know what CG was. He’d been hired to do some work. He’d done it. That was it. No political allegiance implied. Or even known.

I get it. I get the mistake that Tom King (like I said, a writer whose work is keeping me into comics) made, and the anti-Dynamiters. I recognise the frisson of pleasure at outwoking someone else – I felt it when I told my elder stepson that Warren Ellis was cancelled. You feel like you’re one step ahead of others, you can claw a little bit of moral highground for a while, which might stand you at a bit of an advantage the next time you fuck up. But it’s an illusion of moral superiority.

Because here’s the reality:

Aphorism 5: Keeping up with who’s a dick and who isn’t is a niche hobby. Always bear that in mind when dealing with people who don’t know or don’t care.

It’s a lot of work keeping track. Some people don’t want to put the time or effort in. Some people avoid it because it’s too much of a distraction or too damaging to their mental health, or their enjoyment of their culture. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because someone’s reading Rowling they’re transphobic, or working with ComicsGate people they don’t care about online harassment of women, or waxing lyrical about Buffy that they don’t care about domestic abuse. Maybe they don’t know because they haven’t kept up. Maybe they do know and they continue to read the work because it has such a deep value to them they want to continue to connect to it. Maybe they’re working with them because they need the work, or the break, or because actually they have a personal connection to the person because there’s another side to them we don’t see. Although with most of these people it’s difficult to see there could be.

I personally would probably not start to read something by someone if I knew they were a fascist, or a racist, or an abuser, or transphobic. But if I’ve already engaged with their work, and learnt to love it before finding that out, then for me it’s too late to give it up. So I’ll probably not start on the Harry Potter stuff, or Buffy, because there’s other TV shows and books I can read instead. But I’m not going to stop the Cthulhu Mythos bingeing, or listening to Magma, or re-reading Astonishing X-Men, because I only became aware of the dodginess of their creators after I got into them. I’ll certainly not be part of the guilt-by-association lobby. If Julie Comer wants to have a relationship with a right-wing asshole (and she might not be anyway) that’s her choice. If Jae Lee does some work for a sexist abusive person, but that work itself isn’t sexist or abusive, then that’s ok too.

Aphorism 6: Judge people by what they do, not what the people they hang out with, or work with, or sleep with, do.

Finally, the element that seems most egregious in the various things I’ve read is the treatment of Navratilova for being pilloried and unfairly accused of transphobia, simply for questioning the position of trans women in women’s sports. Someone who’s stood up for trans rights being wrongly labelled for one statement. Social media isn’t a great platform for nuanced arguments. Even the most intelligent of people can sound like a right Dawk when they’ve cut their arguments down to 280 characters. I’d be uncomfortable discussing anything like this with fewer than 2617 words. Yet one poorly phrased sentence, or one question, and there’s a contingent of people who will let loose. And like I said, I get it, because finding someone to despise can feel good, and dumping on them is enjoyable. This is predominantly why people bully others, which seems to get missed out of when discussing how to combat bullying in schools. Bullies bully because they enjoy it. The point at which something makes you feel good is the point at which you need to question your motives.

Aphorism 7: Political positions are represented by a lifetime of work. Not 280 characters.

Oh and that previous sentence should be there too.

Aphorism 8: The point at which something makes you feel good is the point at which you need to question your motives.


For now.


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